building a classroom culture

at the start of the school year, one of our very first community building exercises goes like this:

we grab a box of band-aids and ask students to pretend they have an injury somewhere on their body. then we ask individual students to come up to the front of the classroom and no matter where or what their injury is, we react exactly the same way. “oh you broke your leg? here’s a band-aid for your arm. next…ooohhh… an upset stomach? band-aid for your arm. anyone else…?”

we go on like this for a couple more students and get the anticipated giggles as students catch on quickly to the routine and the response. usually (and hopefully), one student will say that the band-aid on his arm wasn’t what he needed for his injury or, if everyone is happily receiving band-aids on their arms for their injuries, we’ll eventually ask, “where do you think you would need a band-aid for that injury?” before putting it on his arm so it’s the same as everyone else’s rather than the place that he named he needed it.

this little activity helps us to launch into what is a major precept in our classroom and sets the stage for the rest of the year (and we hope the rest of their lives). it defines our core beliefs about differentiation and, more broadly, the work that will be going on in our classroom. in our class, fair isn’t everyone getting everything the same. fair is everyone getting what they need. and, since we’re all different, we need – and should expect – different things.

at the beginning of the year, we often have kids (and, let’s be honest, some parents) who are caught up in what classmates are doing or getting. we get it. it’s human nature to compare. the band-aid activity reminds us, though, that we’re all different, and because we’re different, we should be doing different things in our classroom. different things might look like: different math homework, different writer’s notebooks, different just right books. we refer to the band-aid activity often in the first months of school when students or parents have questions about why there are differences between students’ work.

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band-aids in the same spot for everyone, which means they’re not getting what they need.

another activity we do during the first few days of school is for everyone to create a glyph. a glyph is a picture whose parts stand for something else. our glyphs are faces, but each part of the face stands for something – the shape of the face tells our gender, the color of the hair is our favorite color, the shape of our eyes reveals our favorite type of books, etc. fourth graders think it’s funny at first that they’re creating a face that looks nothing like them, and enjoy sharing and comparing their glyph to others. before hanging our glyphs outside our room with a key to show what everything stands for, we look at our class’s glyphs as a whole. there are no two glyphs that are the same, though many glyphs have similar parts. we remind our class of the band-aid activity – of course we are all different! – and emphasize that while we have differences, there are also similarities across our classmates.

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an example of a student’s glyph

a final activity we do during the first week of school to begin to build the culture of our classroom is read oh, the places you’ll go! by dr. seuss. after the read aloud, we give each student a blank puzzle piece and ask them to fill it with drawings of places they went this summer – even if they were home all summer, they can draw their bedroom or backyard. we then work together as a class to put our puzzle together. once it’s together, we talk about how we’ve all come from different places – every place we visited changes us in some way, and so we’re all carrying these places we’ve visited with us into the classroom – but that in our room, we fit together, despite these differences.

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a close up of one of the corner puzzle pieces to our class puzzle. when this piece is cut at the end of the year, it will take the bits of the pieces around it.

our puzzle hangs in a prominent place all year until, on the last day of school, we reread oh, the places you’ll go! and cut apart our puzzle for each student to take home his puzzle piece. when the puzzle is cut apart, it doesn’t follow the lines of each piece. instead, each piece now has edges of the pieces that surrounded it in the puzzle to help remind us that we’re taking a little bit of each person in the classroom with us as we leave – we fit together in our classroom, and also carry one another with us after the school year.

these activities, while of course being pretty low-stakes and giving opportunities for us to get to know one another at the beginning of a new school year, have a more important, higher purpose. each of them helps to teach, build, and reinforce beliefs that we have as teachers and work to have our class reflect in their work and interactions with one another: that fair is getting what we need because we are all different, but even with all of the differences, we fit together and belong in our classroom.

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